Chemistry is a lot like life: curiosity and the willingness to learn from experience lead to great discoveries. In his transformation from civic-minded chemistry major to Colorado College trustee, Brian Williamson ’96 embodies this truth.
After a freshman year at Penn State and some time with his missionary parents in Kenya, Williamson’s inquisitiveness and readiness for change — and the urging of his aunt, Terry Guillory ’76 — brought him, unexpectedly, to Colorado College. When CC questioned his ability to handle the rigor of the Block Plan, Williamson enrolled at a community college and the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs to prove his intellectual mettle.
Once enrolled at CC, he was intrigued by chemistry’s “controlled magic,” which allows scientists to convert abstract theories into plastic and drugs. But he also remained passionate about the world beyond the laboratory walls, its daily changes and surprises. Waking up early to start his experiments, Williamson occasionally left them running in the lab while he led protests elsewhere on campus.
At his honors convocation, Williamson initiated a protest that indelibly marked his life and left a lasting impression on the college. Learning that he was to receive an alumni award for his efforts to increase diversity on campus, he felt hypocritical accepting it, since his efforts had not yet yielded the changes he desired. Williamson and two other students inspired others to line the graduation procession with placards about the number of minorities at CC.
While he enjoyed his CC experience, he felt challenged by the disparity between races and economic classes. “My CC experience as a black man is no different from my daily experience as a black American — sometimes pleasant, sometimes bitter,” Williamson says. “I’m always aware that the ‘otherness’ stick may be hurled at me without warning.”
Shortly after graduation, he accepted a position on the college’s Board of Trustees, partly to further his role as an advocate for issues relating to diversity on campus. Former chair Bill Ward ’64 asked him: “What is it like to be a black man at your age in America?” — a question which sparked lasting, mutual trust and admiration.
As a trustee, Williamson continues to challenge the status quo on issues of race, gender, and class; he focuses on moving discussions beyond statistics (like those he once publicized on posters at Commencement) and toward the ways in which diversity affects CC’s ability to provide an outstanding liberal arts education for everyone.
Williamson meets challenges in other areas of significant transition in his life, including his 2004 marriage to Sarah Kleiner ’00, who is white and Jewish. Williamson says they share engagement with a key question: “What does it mean when two people who are so different say they’re going to forge a relationship and go forward in a world that may be less receptive to their idealism and enthusiasm than they are?”
Williamson sees their progress toward an answer as a little bit like a laboratory experiment, which often begins with both excitement about the future and a twinge of sadness or worry at leaving behind the familiar. Ultimately, the thrill of exploration triumphs.
“Marriage is a catalyst for internal change,” Williamson says; it presents situations that invite conflict, providing the opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The willingness to examine one’s own belief systems and to ultimately allow change is vital for growth, he says.Drawing from his community service at CC and an El Pomar Fellowship, Williamson remains passionate about organizing and community-building. These interests pushed Williamson to law school, then into civil litigation, and ultimately to policymaking. Williamson currently works at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he interacts with doctors researching cancer cures in human subjects — a crossroads for his interest in the welfare of children, his love of science, and his desire to make a difference. Like a true scientist, he recognizes that no experiment is ever perfected; there is always room for further discovery.